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Proposed Akron charter change in votersí hands

10/18/2012 - West Side Leader
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By Ariel Hakim

AKRON — Akron voters will decide on a proposed city charter amendment on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot.

Issue No. 3 reads: “Shall Sections 28.2 and 53 of the charter of the city of Akron be amended to eliminate the cost of an extra election, to elect all Council members to a four-year term at the same election commencing 2015 and to limit raises for members of Council and the mayor?”

If approved, Akron City Council ward representatives would go from serving two-year to four-year terms. At-large Council members already serve four-year terms. All Council members’ seats — 10 ward Council members and three at-large Council members — would be up for election during the same election, along with the mayor, starting in 2015.

To get set on this cycle, all Council members, including at-large members, would be elected for two-year terms in 2013, if the issue passes.

A “yes” vote on Issue No. 3 also would indicate agreement to base raises for Council members and the mayor on the average amount a private industry employee receives as calculated by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic and Council President Marco Sommerville (D-Ward 3) co-sponsored the legislation to put the proposed charter amendment on the November ballot.

At the July 30 meeting, Council approved placing the item on the ballot by a vote of 10-3, with Bruce Kilby (D-Ward 2), Linda Omobien (D-at large) and Michael Williams (D-at large) in opposition.

The charter amendment would save $200,000 in taxpayer dollars for each eliminated election, according to Plusquellic.

“We’ve been looking at just about anything and everything to save money. This fits within the whole list of things we’ve done to cut back on expenses and combine services,” he said.

He sees the proposed amendment as an opportunity to eliminate an “extra” election, he said.

During the last approximately dozen years, at least half of ward Council member races were unopposed, but the city still had to pay for primary elections, he added.

Saving $50,000 a year by eliminating the off-year elections could mean paying the salary of another police officer or firefighter, he said.

Plusquellic also said he believes ward Council members, in their current two-year terms, are “consumed for a full year of campaigning” after a first year in office, and the charter amendment would increase accountability among those officials.

Other area councils, including Summit County Council and Cleveland City Council, have four-year terms, he noted.

Plusquellic said having the Council members all elected at the same time, along with the mayor, also would make it more difficult for them to “leap frog” to other political offices.

“I happen to think that’s not a good system of government,” he said.

As the process is now, Council members are able to run for another office from a “safe seat” without having to resign since the elections for mayor and at-large Council members are staggered, he noted.

For example, an at-large Council member might run for mayor without giving up his or her Council seat, as happened in September 2011, when Williams challenged Plusquellic in the mayoral Democratic primary race.

The proposed legislation “does not in any way, shape or form eliminate the possibility of anyone running in any position that they so choose,” Plusquellic said.

“I think it’s a logical connection,” he also said, to tie the mayor’s and Council members’ salaries to the average salary of workers in the Akron area. “It represents the people that pay our salaries.”

Limiting raises for the mayor and Council members is more about building a protection against any potential future wrongdoing than the cost savings, he said.

The term lengths and salaries are paired in the proposed amendment because they occur together in the city’s charter, said Plusquellic.

Opposition to the amendment comes from several angles.

Most notably, Kilby filed an expedited lawsuit against the Summit County Board of Elections (BOE), the city of Akron and Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted with the Supreme Court of Ohio Sept. 6 objecting to the ballot language after, in August, Husted OK’d the ballot language and the BOE voted 3-1 to allow the proposed charter amendment to go before voters without changes.

The Supreme Court of Ohio decided Sept. 21 to allow the ballot language to stand, stating the question to voters as it is “properly describes the amendment.”

Among Kilby’s objections to the amendment presented in the suit, it stated that “the proposed ballot language is a ‘sales pitch,’ ‘electioneering’ and amounts to a ‘persuasive argument in favor of the proposed charter amendment.’”

Kilby’s lawsuit pointed out that in November 2006, voters defeated the following item by a margin of 61 percent: “Shall Section 28 of the charter of the city of Akron be amended to change the term of a ward Councilman from two years to four years?”

The 2006 ballot language was very straightforward, but this time it is not, Kilby said.

He does not agree that serving four-year terms would make it more likely for ward Council members to make the hard decisions and get things done, he added, noting the U.S. House of Representatives members serve two-year terms.

By couching the proposed measure in language about saving money, it’s a trick to get voters to approve something they actually oppose, he said.

“The amount of money it would save is so miniscule it’s not even worth talking about,” he said.

Kilby said the city’s annual savings of $50,000 per year is all of 0.00997 percent of the city’s yearly $502 million operating budget. The city wouldn’t glean any savings from eliminated elections until 2017, he added.

Also, City Council doesn’t need a charter amendment to decide not to dole out pay raises, he said.

“That stuff was put in there to sound good to voters,” he said.

Kilby also argued the ballot language is misleading in that it does not state that starting in 2015, there will no longer be staggered terms for the mayor and Council members.

“In my opinion, it’s an important feature of our charter,” that it gives the opportunity for at-large Council members to run for mayor without giving up their seats, Kilby added.

“I think the whole [proposal] is self-serving to the incumbent politicians,” he said.

Williams’ reasons for opposing the amendment mirror some of Kilby’s.

The proposal is “an attempt to put a pretty dress on an idea that had already been rejected by the citizens,” Williams said, referring to the 2006 ballot question voters rejected.

He said he believes the two-year terms ward Council representatives currently serve provide the most accountability. It’s the same system in place at both the state and federal levels, where the representatives closest to the people serve the shortest terms, he said.

During the past few years, if nonunionized city workers didn’t get a raise, Council members didn’t either, which already provides a sufficient control, he said.

“If the city is not doing well and private industry is doing better, it sounds like Council, based on this legislation, could conceivably receive higher raises,” he added.

Overall, the proposal isn’t based on good government, he said.

“It is simply a gimmick, particularly the savings aspect, to disguise what [voters] already rejected,” he said.

Putting all City Council members on the ballot at the same time doesn’t make a lot of sense because it creates a system in which there’s less accountability, even for the at-large and the mayor’s seats, he added.

The current system allows at least three Council members the opportunity to challenge the mayor and retain their seats on Council at the same time, which, he argued, provides a protection for citizens.

Omobien also has argued she does not feel it is good governance to have all of City Council’s members up for re-election at the same time. While not opposed to four-year terms for ward Council members, staggering the terms so that the whole body would not be elected the same year would work better, she said.

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